When asked the secret to success by a reporter, the billionaire sixth Duke of Westminster, inheritor of Central London’s priciest property and the U.K.’s third richest man, answered candidly: “Make sure you have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror.” His aristocratic family hailed from Norman France and had the good luck and foresight to join William in the 11th century conquest of Anglo-Saxon Britain. The now-deceased duke knew that his wealth and status were accidents of history. It takes only a slight stretch of this story to understand the inherent unfairness of legacy advantage at Yale and the Ivy League. 

Admissions has cemented a type of aristocracy in the U.S. There is no principled defense for legacy in a democracy. At its crudest, legacy status is an award for being born into the right family. I’m sure some people worked very hard to have Yale alumni for parents, but for most mortals that is not a choice. 

Inherited privilege should have no quarter at Yale. Even without legacy status, many children of alumni would (and do) make it here because they deserve it. As much as I want my children to come here, I do not want them to take opportunities away from more deserving candidates. They should be accepted on their own merits. 

The legacy advantage is an affront to the very notion that all people are created equal, and deserve a fair shot at the American Dream. When Yale gives explicit preference to children of its alumni, it endorses the idea that worth in society comes from unearned privilege — something so abhorrent to the founders that they abolished titles of nobility in the Constitution. 

It is also a way of entrenching white privilege. Going by the arithmetic of admissions over the centuries, the overwhelming majority of beneficiaries will be white. An institution that only recently — and miraculously — discovered the equal worth of Jews, women and people of color, will continue to promote predominantly the children of the Mayflower and more generally those who had the first-mover’s advantage in coming to Yale. 

If someone defends legacy on the grounds of maintaining a type of culture, you should roll your eyes at them for their lazy, unsubtle racism. The same applies for those who argue that private colleges should have infinite discretion in admitting students. It was these very arguments that excluded minorities for centuries. Even private colleges have obligations to society, and one of those is creating a place of equal opportunity.

But do not mistake me. No one should have that privilege — not even minorities. We should not be prepared to swap a racist and classist system for an exclusively classist one. Because anyone who comes to Yale is immediately elevated to a class of their own. So many opportunities are opened up to the alumni of this institution already.

It still remains to be seen whether we can justify the advantage given to legacy applicants on expediency rather than principle. Proponents argue that legacy status does two things. First, it incentivizes alumni to give back. This is undoubtedly true. I have heard many stories of alumni impulsively closing the tap of donations as soon as their son or daughter were rejected, whereas accepted children leads to happier, more gracious alumni. Second, alumni generally pay full tuition, and hence subsidize the tuition of low-income students.

However, the question is whether Yale as an institution should be beholden to alumni donations for its finances. Presumably, the point of a multibillion dollar endowment is its self-sustainability. It seems ludicrous that Yale should have to compromise its principles in a never-ending arms race between Ivies for larger endowments. 

If eliminating legacy status in admissions would result in lower income for the University, so what? Perhaps we should start dipping into the endowment if it means a more equitable campus. Money is only meaningful for an institution insofar as it can pursue its goals. Money for the sake of money is an idle, fruitless endeavor reserved for mundane companies with shareholders. 

Yale is, or should be, primarily dedicated to the pursuit of a better society — one that truly believes in the American Dream of social mobility.

Even if you accept that the University should rely on alumni, there are far better ways of accruing vast sums of money while mitigating the harms of legacy status. I will put forward a proposal I heard from a senior University official: Yale should abolish the legacy advantage but reserve one to three spots in each class to be auctioned off. Imagine the tens of millions of dollars Yale’s Croesuses would throw at the University for those precious spots! If we accept legacy status as the money-making mechanism that it is, why not perfect that system and mitigate the harm to equity?

Adam Krok is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at adam.krok@yale.edu .

  • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

    “Oh my eyes! The virtue signal, it burns!”

    One hopes the short-sightedness (and banality and overdone-edness and so on) of this view is obvious, but I fear I’m wrong on that.

    • Barry Smith

      Please explain the short-sightedness, it is not obvious to me.

    • http://www.dorothypotter.com Dorothy Potter Snyder

      Oh my eyes! The stupidity of the anonymous ignoramus. It burns.

  • Corey Alexander Walker

    Yale is a private university. It owes no one anything and should admit whoever they want.

  • groenima

    Yale isn’t admitting under-qualified legacies. Given an overabundance of incredibly well qualified candidates, it makes sense to me that admissions would use certain other qualities–whether it be 1st gen, athleticism, legacy status, or whatever–to tip the balance. Also, as the parent of FA Yalies, I’m beyond thankful to those legacy donors, and absolutely see the value of a strong family tie to the university.

    • http://www.dorothypotter.com Dorothy Potter Snyder

      Says who? How could you possibly know this? I can assure you that Yale, like Princeton, like Duke, like Harvard, allows unqualified children of big donors in ALL THE TIME, because their main goal is fattened coffers. To whit: Jared Kushner (Harvard); people I personally knew at Yale who had no business studying at a University (Stoned. All. The. Time.); and the endless stream of rich Duke kids who seek my assistance as a writing tutor and then want me to write their papers for them. I know more about this than you do; and, word to the wise, Yale is rich as Croesus. It does not need more huge donations. What nonsense!

      • groenima

        Well, aside from my own anecdotal experiences that come from having 2 kids at Yale who have a variety of friends, I look at admissions statistics about how many alums get in to Yale, average test scores, GPAs, etc. Access to stats on specific students who got into Yale from my son’s prep school–which has many Yale and Harvard parents and sends an unusually high number of students to both schools each year–also gave me insight. I also don’t choose to stereotype broad numbers of people wealthier than me and my kids as stoners and cheaters (I’ve worked as a writing tutor at a major university too FWIW).

        I’ll grant you that a very small number of people may get admitted more for their extreme wealth, fame, or connections, than their qualifications but the vast majority of alums don’t fall into that category.

        I also questiont the “Yale doesn’t need their money” argument. Yale’s endowment was built in large part on wealthy donors who were/are loyal alums. As a proud UVA grad, I understand how deep and fruitful the ties of alums can be to a college. I don’t see why or how they’d say, “Okay, we’ve got enough money now, alums. Thanks for your service. You and your children are now just like every other person in the world to us.” Would that really be good policy? As it is, many children of alums get turned down by admissions-it’s far from a free ride.

  • Simbo

    This guy again…..

    • http://www.dorothypotter.com Dorothy Potter Snyder

      Really good writer, huh?

  • http://www.dorothypotter.com Dorothy Potter Snyder

    Yale is not primarily dedicated to the pursuit of a better society: it is primarily dedicated to fattening its already fat coffers and perpetuating its power. But I love that you wrote this. If quality mattered to the big Ivies, Harvard wouldn’t have just said “thanks but no thanks” to Michelle Jones.

  • Kenneth P. Serbin

    I graduated in 1982. The advantage of legacy status has definitely diminished. In 1980, I noted in a Yale Daily op-ed that one in four members of the class of 1984 was an alumni child. My parents did not even attend college. I was able to obtain a Ph.D. I do believe in equality but also see the need that all colleges and universities have to build identities. In Latin America, the region I study, the college experience is much less a part of socialization, and few people donate to higher education. Follow this link to see my op-ed:

  • Man with Axe

    I was not a legacy, and I don’t have any love for the idea, but if Yale sees granting legacy admissions as helpful to its goals, then I don’t see why it should bow to the political beliefs of undergraduate students who by definition have only a dim view of what it takes to run such a complex institution successfully, and how best to maintain its standing as a preeminent institution of higher learning.

  • ShadrachSmith

    Abolish affirmative action first.

  • Luc

    Am I allowed to inherit IQ from my parents?